BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Newsnight and Jimmy Savile

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Peter Rippon | 17:05 UK time, Tuesday, 2 October 2012

There has been a lot written about why I took the decision not to run a story into allegations of sex abuse by the former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. It has been suggested I was ordered to do it by my bosses as part of a BBC cover-up. It has also been suggested that we deliberately withheld information from the police. Both these allegations are totally untrue and despite consistent strong denials keep getting repeated. I felt it would be useful to share more about what really happened.

The BBC has the highest editorial standards and with any story an editor has to weigh many things before putting something to air. BBC editors have a lot of power and responsibility and I have never, in the many years I have done this job, ever been told by one of my superiors not to do a story against my will. I would not still be working here if they had.

Why did I pursue this story about Jimmy Savile and why did I drop it?

I decided we should pursue the story because of the nature of the allegations and because the key witness told us the police had investigated the claims but the case had been dropped on the grounds he was too old. This made the public interest case from a Newsnight point of view potentially strong. If we could establish some sort of institutional failure we would have a much stronger story.

Some of the factors on the other side were: Newsnight is not normally interested in celebrity expose. Savile was unable to defend himself. What was the public interest served by reporting it given he is dead? The nature of the allegations and the level of proof required. The fact the incidents were 40 years ago.

We had no evidence that anyone from the Duncroft home could or should have known about the allegations. We had no evidence against the BBC. In her original statement our key witness said she was "perfectly certain the BBC had no idea whatsoever of the goings on". However, I felt if we could prove the police or the CPS had let the women down in some way we should go ahead.

We did establish the police had investigated the allegations in 2007. However, as the police would be obliged to investigate I wanted to check how they would respond to the allegation that it was not pursued because Jimmy Savile was too old. The CPS told us:
"The CPS reviewing lawyer advised the police that no further action should be taken due to lack of evidence." The additional guidance noted stated. "As this is the case, it would not be correct to say that his age and frailty was the reason for no further action being taken."

This statement specifically denied the allegation that the investigation was dropped because of his age. I felt it was significant the guidance was included and we had not established any institutional failure and I judged it weakened the story from a Newsnight perspective. I took the decision not to publish. There were some of my team who disagreed strongly with my judgement, and others who agreed equally strongly.

However, those who disagreed accepted my decision. There were no rows of any kind as has been reported.

Did we withhold evidence from the police? No. We are confident that all the women we spoke to had contacted the police independently already. We also had no new evidence against any other person that would have helped the police.

Did my bosses order me to do anything? No. I did discuss it with my bosses in News in the same way I do any contentious story we are working on. I was told in the strongest terms that I must be guided by editorial considerations only and that I must not let any wider considerations about the BBC affect my judgement.

The fact that the BBC has the capacity to do this may feel odd to other organisations but it is fundamental to the trust we share with our audience.

Peter Rippon is the editor of Newsnight

Note: On 22 October 2012 the BBC issued a correction to the above post. You can read it here.

Sofa-lising with Newsnight

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Peter Rippon | 17:01 UK time, Friday, 27 May 2011

In 2010 the awful term "sofalising" was coined. It is communicating with friends online while lounging on the sofa rather than going out.

twitter stream

Now we are seeing another interesting online phenomenon - people sitting at home watching a programme on TV while at the same time discussing what they are watching on another screen with friends, or indeed strangers, on social media sites.

There is some data on it here.

This is really interesting territory for Newsnight, or #newsnight as we are known on Twitter. As our viewers pick up on, share and spread the debates introduced on the programme on Twitter, our hashtag can enter the UK trending lists.

This week's film about Alan Bennett's support to save local libraries from government cuts was just the latest example. Bennett reiterated his previously expressed belief that closing libraries constitutes child abuse - his views were then picked up on Twitter, resulting in his name appearing among the most cited phrases in the UK on the social media site after the programme.

This dual-screen media phenomenon is being driven by rapid changes in technology consumption. There has been 40% growth in mobile web use over the last 12 months, on smart phones especially, and all media organisations are predicting it will be a key growth area.

Good TV, especially for an organisation like the BBC, is often about being a space for collective audience experiences where communities can coalesce. And that's why our regular TV audience sat at home watching us on telly while tweeting about us from their laptops or mobiles is so important.

There has even been speculation that we sit in the programme gallery monitoring what is being said on social media and end interviews if someone is not going down well. For the record, we do not. Some nights we might find ourselves having no-one left to interview if we did.

There is an important caveat. Newsnight's social media audience is still a fraction of its television audience, and a fraction of the audience who consume our online content.

The numbers are still dwarfed by viewers who never mind tweeting from their smart phones, might have no internet access at all. So we need to be careful what we take from it but as raw data on what our audiences really think and react to immediately it is really useful.

The BBC is looking into how it can use second screens to complement what is happening on the dominant screen and how it can broaden the discovery, appeal and engagement with its audience by doing so. So watch this space... or should I say both spaces.

Peter Rippon is the editor of Newsnight.

Newsnight's Politics Pen

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Peter Rippon | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 7 July 2009

There has been some predictable criticism of Newsnight's Politics Pen experiment for being politically biased. I would urge viewers and critics to at least watch it before rushing to judgement.

Newsnight logoPolitics Pen is not a finely politically calibrated panel like Question Time or Any Questions. It does not need to be because we are trying to do something different.

However, Sir Digby Jones never joined the Labour party and was part of the "government of all talents". This is what he says on our website.

Left wing Labour luvvie? Really? Greg Dyke was a Labour donor, then a Lib Dem donor and is now working for the Tories chairing their review on creative technology.

Deborah Mattinson is employed by the Labour party - but her contributions to the Pen are not from a party political point of view - she is a pollster telling us what the likely public reaction would be to the ideas proposed.

Matthew Taylor is a former Labour strategist, but like all the panel, he understands the idea of the Pen is to make engaging TV and at the same time illuminate the issues and pressures that decision makers have to consider in choosing policy. It is not about expressing political views.

I note that those who accuse us of bias do not point to anything that's actually been said or happened in the Pen. Indeed the majority of those who have pitched have argued for spending cuts, hardly a left wing agenda.

We will be running the Politics Pen again later this year. If you have views on what you would like to cut do let us know. We may ask you to pitch it in the Pen.

Peter Rippon is the editor of Newsnight.

To swear or not to swear

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Peter Rippon | 15:21 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

BH logoThere have been complaints from listeners about swearing during Broadcasting House this weekend from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk. The programme was live and a guest used the F-word. I want to apologise to listeners offended by the use of the word - it was inappropriate at that time of the day and in that context. The guest who used it, Irvine Welsh, apologised on air as soon as he said it and he apologised again to the BH team afterwards.

There is always an element of risk in doing live programmes. The BBC's Editorial Guidelines recognise that judgements about the use of swear words are difficult because they depend on tone and context and there is no consensus about which words are acceptable. Radio 4 is aimed at an adult audience and, unlike television, there is no watershed. In general, I think Radio 4 listeners have a high tolerance for swearing. We had 20 or so complaints in this case. But we attract just as many when we bleep or edit out swearing. Listeners argue we are insulting their intelligence and censoring when we do it.

BH at BH

Peter Rippon | 10:39 UK time, Friday, 18 April 2008

There will be a special edition of Broadcasting House this weekend to mark the first 10 years of the programme. For the first time, Broadcasting House will come live from the Radio Theatre in... er... Broadcasting House.

BHlogo.jpgThe BH programme has only come from the famous building itself once or twice... right at the beginning. The name was chosen by the first editor as a joke, because the production team was moved out of the beloved BH building just as BH-the-programme started. Being always slightly behind the curve has long been a feature of the programme and aside from the mail arriving on our desks in Television Centre a couple of weeks late for 10 years, it has not caused too many problems.

The original idea was the programme should be 'not the Today programme' and since launch we have tried to subvert the some of the traditional rules of news and current affairs. The Donald Rumsfeld Soundbite of the Week (we celebrated his retirement here), is one example. Our Sony Award nominated Quiz, and a theatrical arrest (which you can listen to here) are other successful examples. We even made a tape of Rumfeld soundbites for the then NATO Secretary General, George Robertson, to give to the man himself.

We have also got into trouble. Our colleagues on Today have hopefully forgotten the time we bugged their meeting room (they were not there when we did it, honest). We provoked the ire of the press when, in an attempt to mock the emerging continuous TV news channels reporting of Royal stories, we put a reporter outside Clarence House to report regularly during the programme that nothing was happening during the Queen Mother 'being 99'. It was disrespectful apparently. We also celebrated the arrival the Al Jazeera's English language service by getting Charlotte Green to read the shipping forecast in Arabic (which you can listen to here). Listeners complained it was frightening.

Over the years we have hopefully shown that on a Sunday morning the Radio 4 listener can take a mix of the lateral, wry and self-deprecating with serious journalism and sometimes uncomfortable journalism in the best traditions of BBC News. So what can you expect this weekend. Maybe something on the benefits of self indulgence?

iPM is back

Peter Rippon | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 3 April 2008

The PM programme logoThe radio version of iPM is back this Saturday. iPM, through a blog, asks its audience to share what they know with us and other listeners to help shape what we do on the programme.

Our starting point is that there is always someone who knows more about a subject than we do and technology is allowing us to tap into that more effectively than ever before. It can be letting us know about things happening that others have missed, like the blogger who gave us an eyewitness account of the Awakenings movement in Iraq when it was in its infancy (which you can listen to here).

It could be working collectively with us on a story, like the broadband connection speed issue we addressed in the last series that led to us being able to hold those responsible to account.

Or it could be just having fun with some of the map projects we have done. Have a look to see where people are when listening to PM.

The one thing iPM is definitely not is just a vehicle for people to hear their views on the radio. User Generated Content is often derided by its critics. I think unfairly. A lot of what is out there is drivel, but like TV, just because some of it is rubbish does not mean that it all is. Our challenge is to use what our audiences know to fuel and inform and support our journalism. It would be a very foolish producer who felt the collective knowledge of the Radio Four audience is not worth tapping into.

Lessons from the pulpit

Peter Rippon | 14:24 UK time, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The World at One interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury last week. You may have heard about it (or you can listen to it here).

World at One logoIt's common when an interview provokes such a huge reaction, most of it negative, for the messenger to get a bit of flak too. To his credit the Archbishop has not used this tactic (as his speech yesterday proved). Lambeth Palace was aware the speech needed to be handled carefully. So were we. Our reporter, Christopher Landau (MA Theology, MPhil Elizabethan Church History) knows what he is talking about and framed the interview very carefully and precisely to make sure we accurately reflected the Archbishop's view.

There has been some criticism of the 'tabloids' and media more widely for mangling the message. I am not convinced that goes very far in explaining the public reaction either. When the interview went out, nine minutes long, we broadcast no criticism of it. Within minutes we had a huge, overwhelmingly negative, e-mail and text response to what he said. That's hours before any newspapers had gone to print.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsA lot of comment has rightly focused on the culture clash between the cloistered academic world of theological debate and the crass, clumsy demands of the 24-hour mass media.

There's an old adage in TV that the key to good storytelling is to simplify and exaggerate. In radio there is an apocryphal story about the seasoned old hack who when asked to cut a crafted minute long despatch to 40 seconds responded. "My dear chap, I can do the Second World War in 40 seconds if you like, but you might lose a bit of detail."

However, it would be wrong to conclude it is only the media who can learn from this. As Martha Kearney points out in her World at One newsletter, the speech was very high fibre. If the Archbishop insists on writing in sentences that are 146 words long he will not get many shifts on our Newsdesk.

Car crash radio?

Peter Rippon | 14:32 UK time, Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Oh dear, a moment on Broadcasting House this weekend has upset a lot of listeners. It featured an exchange between the former Labour insider Derek Draper and the Liberal Democrat acting leader, Vince Cable, in what is supposed to be a review of the Sunday papers. They were discussing this. (Click here to listen to it). Among the comments:

Broadcasting House logo"I wouldn't welcome Derek Draper's boorish behaviour in my home, so please don't invite him into my home on my behalf. Debate fine, abuse no."

"There is one guest taking over the discussion and voicing his biased political opinions. There should be a briefing of guests prior to the programmes informing them of protocol and the BBC's constitution."

All the responses we got were critical of Mr Draper and some blamed us for allowing it to happen. It reminded me of when Joan Rivers met Darcus Howe on Midweek (which you can listen to here).

I agree the BBC should not be deliberately manufacturing confrontations. We did not in this case. We should also not allow bullying and intimidation. I do not think we did that either. Vince Cable is very capable of defending himself. However, I would resist the urge to avoid confrontation altogether. There should be a place for strongly held views vigorously expressed. People get angry because they care about things. Whilst it may have backfired in Mr Draper's case this time, radio should show how deeply views are held. Good programmes should not always be gentle and friendly. They need to be challenging and uncomfortable at times as well.


Peter Rippon | 09:48 UK time, Tuesday, 16 October 2007

We are starting a new programme on Radio Four and we need your help. Actually it’s more like an ongoing conversation on the web that will have a programme attached to it once a week. iPM will rely on its audience to help shape the content through a blog. We will source what we do through the best blogs, passionate 'ear catching' online debate as well as comments and recommendations of others. So what ends up on air will be shaped by listeners and bloggers.

The PM programme logoOur intention is to distil the very best of the web to produce a new type of programme that is in the best traditions of BBC Radio Four. We'll be as transparent as we can about the ideas and guests that make it to air. Our blog will explain why some ideas and stories get dropped or squeezed out. Also, by posting our rough ideas in front of the audience, we're also inviting the well-informed and blog-savvy to help us develop a particular idea.

So, we're open to all ideas and opinion, alternative takes on stories old and new, and aim to shine a light on issues that are under reported or not considered traditional fare for a news and current affairs programme. With around 61 million blogs, over 125,000 podcasts listed on iTunes and seemingly every office in the UK permanently connected to Facebook we hope we won't want for ideas.

There have been many attempts to find the missing link between old and new media. Think of iPM as a small contribution to that debate. If it fails I can always blame the presenter.

iPM the blog is open for business now. iPM the programme will transmit on Radio Four on 10 November at 1730 but you'll be able to listen on demand whenever you want and there will be a podcast too.

On with the music

Peter Rippon | 10:18 UK time, Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The PM programme logoWe do a lot about dead people on Radio Four. There are those who argue an elderly man dying should not be a news story, but we often find reflecting on someone's life irresistible. The traditional way of doing a radio 'obit' is to get other people to pay tribute, but on PM we prefer to hear from the person themselves by running an old interview or, as in Ronnie Hazlehurst's case, just experiencing a body of work. Enjoy.

The BBC is currently debating what it is for. Thank you for your contribution to the debate Ronnie.

'Racist in Peace'

Peter Rippon | 15:10 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Our coverage of the death of Bernard Manning provoked lively debate in the Glass Box on the PM Blog last night (the Glass Box is where listeners comment and discuss what they thought of the programme each day). We interviewed Frank Carson and some listeners felt our coverage proved we are a bunch of liberal lefties. What do you think? (listen to it here).

The PM programme logoIronically the item was followed by a look at the BBC Trust impartiality report. The report demonstrates how impartiality can be a fiendishly tricky concept. For me, had we interviewed a critic of Bernard Manning asking 'how racist was he then?' that would be a lefty perspective. Had we just asked Frank Carson to eulogise his friend that would have been partial as well.

The assumption we made was that Bernard Manning was a controversial comic who many accused of being racist. It is the same line taken by all the national press today from liberal lefty ones to the Sun's 'Racist in Peace' headline.

Frank Carson and Bernard ManningSome listeners say that because Carolyn Quinn put the allegations of racism to Mr Carson and asked how he felt about it that must be the BBC's view. I find this pretty simplistic.

If we challenge a contributor it does not mean that the position the interviewer is taking is 'the BBC view'. The fact that we gave air time to a friend of Mr Manning who gave a powerful and moving tribute does not mean we support that view either. All we are trying to do is to find the most effective way of telling a story in a way consistent with our obligation to be impartial.

The Glass Box

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Peter Rippon | 12:11 UK time, Wednesday, 11 April 2007

This week we are starting a new feature on PM - and we need your help.

The PM programme logoThe Glass Box will give listeners a regular opportunity to comment, praise and criticise what you hear on the programme, and engage with programme makers and with each other in a public forum. We've already tried it and listeners, producers and editors say they've found it useful. It will be on the PM blog, and is called the Glass Box because every night after the programme we sit in the Glass Box just outside the studio and discuss the programme.

The Glass Box is a place to discuss what worked and what didn't. It's never rude or personal. We use it as a tool to try to make the programme better.

Old media new media

Peter Rippon | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2007

There are lots of new media types who snigger and mock as we old media types stumble around trying to make sense of newfangled ways of communicating. Many confidently predict our slow demise. I am not so sure.

The PM programme logo In evidence, I would cite the success of the PM blog. It has already spawned a fan site, there is even a song.

It really has established itself as of the web rather than just on the web. You do not have to take my word for it. Ask the Sony awards people.

It works because it has given some of the 3.65 million people who listen to PM a platform to meet each other and has made listening a shared community experience. It is something radio, with its natural intimacy, is uniquely positioned to deliver.

I read in the State of the News Media 2007 report that some of the most successful blogs are becoming businesses or are being assimilated into the established media and that some bloggers are forming associations with ethics codes and standards of conduct to bolster their credibility. Who's catching up with who here?

Wiped off the map?

Peter Rippon | 10:23 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Did Iranian President Ahmadinejad say Israel should be wiped off the map? There is a body of opinion who argue he did not, and he has been misquoted. The BBC does attribute the quote to him so I thought it might be useful to set out why.

The PM programme logoPresident Ahmadinejad made the remark at a conference. The comment was picked up and translated from the Farsi by the BBC's Monitoring Service. Those who challenge the 'wiped off the map' translation argue other translations would be more accurate, among them:

"The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time".

They argue the President was merely repeating a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini. They also point out that when subsequently asked about the quote President Ahmadinejad said he had not been advocating practical military action against Israel and that he was saying Israel has no legitimacy as a state.

ahmadinejad_203_300afp.jpgSo why do we continue to use it? The BBC's experts at the Monitoring advise "there is no direct translation into English of the Farsi phrase used by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Therefore there a number of possible ways of rendering the Farsi original into English. However, in the context of the whole passage we believe our original interpretation is an accurate reflection of the words."

At the end of last year after a complaint from a viewer that Andrew Marr had used the phrase "wiped off the face of the map", the position was investigated by the BBC Governors' Complaints Committee (before it was replaced by the BBC Trust). The judgement reads in part:

"The Committee carefully considered the wording of the translation of the speech from a number of sources, including translations from BBC Monitoring and from the Middle East Research Institute in Washington. The Committee also reflected on how the speech had been translated in British newspapers and on Al Jazeera Online. The Committee noted the inherent problem with accuracy in translations. It noted that all the translations varied to a greater or lesser degree, and it was difficult to decide which, if any, was the most accurate. None of the various translations provided any evidence for the charge that Andrew Marr had misrepresented what the Iranian President had said.

The Committee felt that the language used by the Iranian President was highly emotive by its nature and had been recognised as such in the international condemnation of what he had said. Andrew Marr had done nothing more than highlight this in his introduction. The Committee was also clear that neither the language nor the tone used by Andrew Marr could be considered as showing bias."

Interviewing the BNP

Peter Rippon | 12:05 UK time, Tuesday, 16 January 2007

There is something very ritualistic about interviewing the British National Party on the BBC. We go through the same editorial debate every time, we do the interview, we get complaints. Our experience on Broadcasting House this weekend was no exception (listen to it here).

Broadcasting House logoThere is a body of opinion that says we should never interview the BNP. We should never give it the 'oxygen of publicity'. I profoundly disagree. It is a legitimate political party with a degree of political support. The debate we have is about whether the editorial grounds for doing an interview are strong enough, about how much coverage we should do, and about how the sequence should be constructed and the interview conducted.

This weekend the editorial grounds for doing it were strong. There was the establishment of a far-right caucus in European Parliament, demonstrations outside the English National Ballet, and as Labour MP John Cruddas conceded in the piece, a BNP emboldened by a sense that the debate about multi-culturalism in the UK has shifted. The fact that in the collective memory of the programme no one could remember ever having done a BNP interview meant we were not in danger of giving it more attention that it deserves.

The other issue to consider was how to do the interview. There are different schools of thought on this. Personally I think rigorous but polite, evidence-based, dissection is far more effective than putting on a cloak of indignation and just hectoring a lot on the assumption that everyone agrees with you.

For further debate about this kind of issue have a look here.

Window on your World

Peter Rippon | 15:55 UK time, Friday, 8 December 2006

pmwindow.jpgThe great PM programme 'Window on your World at 5' event took place this week. There is now a really enthusiastic web community on the PM Blog and we thought it would be fun to give people a chance to do more than just blog.

We asked people to take a photograph of what they could see as PM came on air last Tuesday. We were completely overwhelmed by the response. We expected to get a few hundred sent in. We got thousands. It's going to take us ages to put them all up. Thank you to all who took part. It is oddly profound and humbling to see so many people in the mundane act of choosing to listen to us.

More on murder

Peter Rippon | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Thanks to the dozens of you who contributed to the posts about how we cover crime.

The PM programme logoSome common themes emerged and we can take a lot from what was said. There were pleas for more context in our reporting. We do it, but we will try to do more. The most common criticisms were that we do too many stories purely for their shock value, and that we are guilty of creating panic and an unnecessary fear of crime.

Are we guilty? On Radio Four I am confident we are not. In fact, our instincts can tend to be too conservative. We are comfortable doing stories when there is an issue attached but when it is just a powerful human story we sometimes shy away.

There was a heated debate in the PM office as the Soham story unfolded. Some felt we should not cover it because when it first broke there were no apparent issues involved. It was just an awful compelling story. However, we were right to tell it in the constrained and sober way we did. We were right to report the Tom Ap Rhys Price murder for the same reasons. To ignore a story when it has become such a major part of the national conversation risks us appearing out of touch and irrelevant.

One of the other consequences of your comments was that I was invited to an internal BBC editors' forum on crime. Our home editor Mark Easton had some interesting thoughts on crime statistics that are food for thought for those wanting us to use them to give more context to reporting. He says:

    "We must be very wary of crime statistics. The numbers do not tell us whether crime is going up or down. In fact, they massively underestimate the level of criminal behaviour in this country.

    "Most crime, much of it very serious, never gets reported to the police. It never gets identified by adult victims responding to the British Crime Survey. In the year 2000, police in England and Wales recorded approximately five million suspected crimes. Analysis by the Home Office suggested there were actually 60 million crimes committed that year. A report by Lord Birt for Downing Street looking at the same year concluded the figure was closer to 130 million crimes.

    "Recorded crime figures reflect the crimes the criminal justice system has the capacity to process and chooses to focus upon."

Ana Asif (I'm sorry)

Peter Rippon | 13:29 UK time, Tuesday, 21 November 2006

We've upset the listeners again.

Broadcasting House logoOn Broadcasting House this week we wanted to pay homage to al-Jazeera's new English-language network.

As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery we thought it would be nice to test an Arabic version of Radio Four. So we got Charlotte Green to present one of Radio Four's more iconic fixtures in Arabic (you can listen here).

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the listener who found it 'frightening'. I also apologise to the listener who found it too politically correct. That really was not the intention. Finally, I would like to apologise to the listener who thought they had gone mad when listening to it. You have not.

I have.


Peter Rippon | 10:23 UK time, Wednesday, 8 November 2006

I need your help. For a programme committed to holding officials to account, testing argument and rigorous debate we sometimes have a problem with a more traditional form of news.... Crime. How much of it should we have in our programme?

The PM programme logo
When deciding whether to do a crime story it is easier if there is an issue attached: there's a terrorism angle, it says something about UK drug culture, there is a clear racial motive, the criminal justice system failed etc etc. But when its just a compelling, awful, human story it's much harder to judge.

Heart wrenching interviews with relatives can be deeply moving and powerful radio but what makes them news? We devote significant resources to crime stories so I would appreciate your thoughts.

A heated debate

Peter Rippon | 14:25 UK time, Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Occasionally phrases enter the political lexicon that start life in small isolated stories but then rapidly come to dominate.

pm1.gifUntil recently it was "political correctness gone mad", but I would suggest that this has now been overtaken by politicians "calling for a debate". It is a useful phrase because it does not require the proposer to say what they think about the issue they want debated (as I write I am listening to Tony Blair's monthly news conference. He's just called for one on integration again, so I rest my case).

There is an irony in this current trend because in reality, despite a great tradition of parliamentary debate in this country, we sometimes find it very difficult to get politicians to debate issues.

On the radio "a debate" involves getting two or more people with different views to argue and discuss with each other. When we try to hold one with politicians we quickly find ourselves in a labyrinth of convention and unwritten rules. Cabinet ministers rarely agree to discussions with anyone, shadow cabinet ministers often do not like doing discussions with junior ministers, junior ministers do not like discussions with backbenchers and so it goes on.

I should point out there are many noble exceptions to these rules but they do regularly consume much producer effort.

When it comes to programmes like PM, politicians much prefer what we call a "one to one" where the presenter just asks questions and the politician answers. Although there does seem to be a new phenomenon in this type of interviewing too. Witness Peter Mandelson on PM this week asking himself a question and then answering it. I wonder if it will catch on.

Who ate my lunch?

Peter Rippon | 16:28 UK time, Thursday, 21 September 2006

I saw a fascinating vision of the future (or do I mean the present?) on the seafront in Brighton this week.

The PM programme logoIt happened on the day Charles Kennedy addressed the Liberal Democrat party conference. Our reporter, Sean Curran, went to capture the atmosphere as Mr K walked the hundred yards from his hotel to the conference centre. He found it harder than normal because the media scrum was huge - and despite having a fine set of elbows Sean struggled to get near the man himself.

Watching the TV pictures of our man getting bumped and buffeted I realised why. The usual TV crews, snappers, scribblers and radio hacks are having to contend with a new tribe. In the scrum there was Michael White from the Guardian trying to record a few words with Charlie for his podcast.

Charles Kennedy surrounded in BrightonLater in the hall there was Matthew Parris from the Times recording his own thoughts for his Times podcast, and bizarrely at one point the Tory blogger Iain Dale appeared to be being followed by a TV crew.

I think it was Greg Dyke who commented that when it comes to the new media world we are all eating each others' lunch. Given I am now writing this blog I guess he means me too. Bon appetit.

Village news

Peter Rippon | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 8 September 2006

This week while we hacks have been revelling in one of the most dramatic political stories in years a vocal section of our audience has taken a different view.

The PM programme logoEven on Radio Four, where listeners normally have a high threshold for political news, there have been complaints. Here's an eloquent example:

"That's it! 8.18 am and I have just switched John Humphrys off (again) and tuned into Radio 1 (and I'm nearly 60!). This inane drivel that broadcasters (like you) are peddling, with your opinions based on tittle-tattle as though it were fact has now sunk even beneath the level of the Daily Mail. I thank God that at least I can turn you off; that I don't live anywhere near the M25 ghetto that is generating all this crap; that you are not one of my neighbours; that I won't be meeting ANY of you in the pub, on a walk in the hills, or at a dinner party this weekend. For goodness' sake GIVE IT A REST."

This sort of view demonstrates an unusual dissonance between the journalists and some of those they serve. Normally when listeners complain, whether you agree or disagree with the complaint, you can understand why they are doing it.

On this story journalists in the PM office just look puzzled and bemused when confronted by such views. For us it's an utterly compelling piece of political drama. It's the battle over who is going to be in charge of the country played out on the airwaves. Some say we should concentrate on policies, but policies are less relevant if the person putting them forward will not be in a position to carry them out.

So overall I think it's ridiculous to suggest we are all too obsessed. It's also wrong to say it's only a story inside the 'Westminster bubble'. I visited a friend in the Cotswolds this week and was struck how even the sheep seemed to be worried about the prime minster's future. If you listen carefully they are definitely saying 'Blair'....'Blair'.... 'Blair'.

News cheese

Peter Rippon | 16:52 UK time, Thursday, 24 August 2006

Eddie Mair's PM blog has been launched with great fanfare. Well OK Eddie was testing the software and managed to post a test message so we've decided just to keep going.

The PM programme logoWe invited listeners to the PM Newsletter to come up with a phrase that encapsulates PM that could act as a strapline for the blog. We will put up a different one each day. I hope you enjoy them. Among my favourites are:

From Sammy Loutro PM: "The creamiest gobbets scooped straight from the middle of the News Cheese"

From Wolf Marloh PM: "The Today programme for Australians"

From Mohawk Dave PM: It's better than daytime telly"

We've decided to do a blog because I strongly believe the intimate relationship PM listeners have with the programme is similar to the sense of belonging successful online communities have. The massive take up of the PM Newsletter has reinforced that view for me. The newsletter will continue, for now, but the blog allows listeners to talk to each other without us getting in the way and not just when we are on air.

What can you expect from the blog and how will it evolve? It could be the vanguard in showing what radio can offer in the BBC's Creative Future, or it could be a dump for endless inane, barely literate, drivel. Your guess is as good as mine.

Is news funny?

Peter Rippon | 11:15 UK time, Wednesday, 9 August 2006

One of the programmes I edit, Broadcasting House, really irritates some listeners. There is a small but vocal section of Radio Four devotees who just do not accept the fundamental proposition - that you can have fun as well as do serious news on the same programme.

Broadcasting House logoThankfully the show's healthy audience figures convince me that such views are a minority. So recently Mark Doyle has exposed child labour in the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (listen here), but at the same time we've made a theatrical arrest (listen here).

Getting the balance and tone right is hard. In fact it is one of the hardest things we do. It regularly dominates our editorial discussions and we get it wrong sometimes. In fact, if you want to see the blood drain from any reporter's face you do not need to send them off to doorstep the relatives of the victim of some terrible tragedy. As they leave the building on a story just say "have some fun with it!" and watch them wilt.

It may be hard but I believe passionately we must continue to do it. Radio Four is often criticised for being too stuffy, too aloof and too elitist. Humour is a crucial weapon in countering such perceptions.

Peter Rippon is editor of PM and Broadcasting House

Fire safety

Post categories:

Peter Rippon | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 28 July 2006

As an editor, I do worry about being too politically correct in our coverage. However, I also worry about being offensive.

The PM programme logoIt was with those thoughts in mind that we approached the story about the firefighters threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to hand out leaflets at a Gay Pride event.

The story was complicated because the firemen (or do I mean firefighters?) were not willing to talk, so we had no idea why they took the action they did. It could be blatant homophobia, or there could have been other reasons. The men could argue they are not homophobic, they just felt uncomfortable. It was suggested that there is tradition of firemen being seen as sex objects by some in the gay community... just Google "gay" and "fireman". In sexual harassment cases, "harassment" is defined by the impact on the recipient and not by the intention of the person accused of the behaviour.

We discussed following this line with the Stonewall campaigner we were interviewing on the programme (hear it here). In the end Carolyn Quinn settled for suggesting that the men might have felt awkward or embarrassed. We did not develop the argument, partly because there were other interesting angles to explore, but also because we felt the guest could reasonably be expected to find such gross stereotyping offensive.

Peter Rippon is editor of PM and Broadcasting House

Bye bye birds

Peter Rippon | 09:29 UK time, Thursday, 6 July 2006

PM's experiment with playing birdsong at the end of the programme rather than the chimes of Big Ben ('the Bongs' we call them) has ended.

The PM programme logoWe played a montage of our greatest hits at the end of the programme (listen here) in an effort to placate the hundreds of listeners now arguing we should ditch the Bongs and keep the birds. I'm not sure the fabric of the universe could survive such a move but there has been some well argued comment.

• Andrew Davy - "Keep the birdsong. Big Ben now seems stuffy, grey and the sound of an Ealing-comedy kind of England. Your final contributor, the Herring gull (complete with waves rolling in behind), made me go all misty-eyed as I sat in the heatwave rush hour."

• Tim Horton - "Stuff the bongs, please keep the bird song - I've loved this educational spot. On digital, the bongs are well off time anyway. Can we have the Radio 4 UK theme back too? I'll pass on the PM theme."

• Paddy Finnegan - "I think we should find a place for the birdsong somewhere in the show. It is impossible for me to believe that the songs could not be relocated in the show without upsetting the balance. Indeed, it could be used as editorial comment. I can easily imagine a time when a senior politician has failed at the third time of asking to answer the clear question, his voice is faded gently out while a much-loved voice gently intones... 'and here, with no less to contribute to the subject than the right hon... is the song of the golden oriel...' cue birdsong."

• Rowan Woods - "I grieved when I heard your listener's comment that he had now heard all he needed to hear of birdsong. I cannot imagine ever hearing enough of birds singing, and to sacrifice that little breath of heaven for the hammering of ponderous old bells is, I feel, a tragic metaphor for humanity's rejection of the natural world."

• Richard Evans - "Keep the birdsong. The wood pigeon made more sense than some of the members of the cabinet."

• John Pringle - "How disappointing that you're abandoning the birdsong to revert to the dreary metrocentric quarter bells. Why not adopt that wonderful recording of eider duck as your signature tune, to be played at the start and the end of each programme?"

If you've not heard the Eider... it's the one doing a Frankie Howard impression towards the end of the montage. I guess we will have to find ad hoc reasons for including Birdsong in PM in future. You'll just have to keep listening for it.

Grandstand, ToTP, and then...

Peter Rippon | 16:03 UK time, Tuesday, 4 July 2006

First it was Grandstand, then Top of the Pops: the seemingly unstoppable demise of some of the BBC's oldest and most established brands got us wondering in the PM programme office what, or who, is likely to be next?

The PM programme logoNaked self-interest soon focused the discussion on the question "will it be us?"

Like the other brands, we've been around a long time - 36 years.

We are also very Old School in how we broadcast. We go on air when we want, not when the listener wants.

We have a healthy share of the UK radio audience at the moment, but on broadband your choice of station is global. And, as Mark Thompson pointed out to the Radio Academy, listeners will soon be creating their own schedules on MyBBCRadio.

It's all food for thought and part of the intense Creative Future debate we are having. Having said all that, we do still have some things going for us. We still manage to produce what my boss would call "great content". We have a healthy weekly reach of three and half million listeners and, after the Today Programme, we remain comfortably the most listened to news show on radio.

So I reckon there is life left in us yet. Which brings us back to the original question... if not us, who? Any suggestions?

More swearing

Peter Rippon | 13:32 UK time, Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Following Kevin's posting about swearing on News 24, we also used the F-word on PM yesterday at about seven minutes past five in the afternoon. However, we did not do it by accident. We chose to do it.

The PM programme logoMy initial thought was there was no way we could use it, but after discussing the tone and context we decided we should, but with a "health warning".

Radio Four listeners expect adult journalism. We felt that Abdul Kahar's account of the first words the police spoke to him was a powerful punctuation point in the story he was telling. As such, it was a really important moment in the narrative and to lose it would have detracted from the impact. The word was also used a couple of other times in the news conference, but we felt that in those cases we could avoid using it because they were not so integral to the story.

So far we have had only two complaints. Very few. In the past we've had far more from listeners complaining we are being patronising when we've bleeped swear words.

We do try to avoid offensive language whenever possible. Each case is different. I recently apologised to listeners who were rightly offended that we had used the word "shag". In that case we got it wrong and the tone and context in which we used it were not justified. It was my fault. A producer asked me if it was OK to say shag and I assumed it was being used to mean exhausted or knackered. We ended up with a contributor advising the new England manager to make sure his players did not "shag prostitutes". It was completely out of context.

Bongs and Birds

Peter Rippon | 11:26 UK time, Monday, 12 June 2006

For many, the loss of the bongs was a shattering blow. One of the unique intimacies of radio is the way it can regulate your day. So when we were told Big Ben and its sidekicks were being silenced for repairs for a few weeks, we knew we had a problem. 'The Bongs' at the end of PM and the beginning of the Six O'Clock News are one of the key anchors in a Radio Four listener's day.

The PM programme logoDogs would go unfed. Children unbathed. One listener worried he'd miss his turn on to the A303 from the A34.

So what were we to do to fill those precious 15 seconds (roughly) each day? We decided to ask the listeners and subscribers to our daily newsletter for their thoughts. Predictably lots wanted the return of the UK Theme, other wags suggested a new News Briefing item. But in the end they came up with an inspired idea...... Birdsong. Until the Bongs return we are playing the song of a different bird up to the pips. The response has been overwhelming. Listeners are sending in their own recordings.

At first we feared a Roland Rat moment, but the bongs will be back soon.

On reflection there is a lot we in the business of trying to communicate by sound alone can learn from the birds. Birdsong is one of the purest, most poetic and intensely beautiful audio experiences nature produces. Something for all who work in radio to think about.

Log on

Peter Rippon | 11:09 UK time, Friday, 19 May 2006

In today's interactive world we are constantly bombarded with random scraps of information about what our viewers and listeners think of us. I now get daily accounts of what listeners liked and disliked on a whole range of BBC programmes I never get time to see or hear.

pm.gifBut what do we do with all this new information? How can we identify what is valuable and can help us make better, more relevant programmes from the chaff? For me there remains one Oracle, one place where the owl of Minerva really spreads her wings... The Audience Log.

Yesterday on PM we were treated to a gem. A clear, weighty and beautifully honed view:

"The report on Sir Paul McCartney's marriage was not newsworthy."

For a vast number of Radio Four listeners the above truth is self-evident. That is why we constantly shy away from so called "Entertainment News'. This particular example was actually on the easier end of the spectrum to judge.

Macca is a big deal for our audience, he is one the few figures in popular culture who is. For me the strength and appeal of Radio Four has always been the eclecticism of its journalism. We should be comfortable telling stories about anything, so long as we do it with intelligent and engaging narrative techniques. We should do entertainment news in that spirit.

So I am sorry to the anonymous listener who felt so moved to leave such a carefully crafted comment in the log. I think you're wrong... this time.

Roll on the World Cup.

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